Florida State fans who value the reputation of their alma mater as much as the success of its football team can breathe a sigh of relief. Jameis Winston plans to leave Tallahassee and join the NFL.
NFL commissioner/sheriff Roger Goodell — who hasn’t had a stellar tenure when it comes to the topic of morality in his league — can start holding his breath. Winston will arrive with hernia-causing baggage.
Yet plenty of teams with a quarterback problem are prepared to take a risk on Winston, pair him with a babysitter and hope he grows up fast. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have the first pick in the NFL Draft, and if they decide to pass on Oregon’s Mr. Clean, 2014 Heisman winner Marcus Mariota, they could opt for Mr. Poor Judgment, 2013 Heisman winner Winston. The New York Jets, always eager to try another quarterback experiment despite their failed ones, are in the picture, as are the Cleveland Browns, apparently ready to choose another controversy-magnet rookie even after the Johnny Manziel mistake.
Winston has shown a Houdini-like ability to escape trouble on and off the field. He was accused of rape, but never charged. He stole $32 worth of crab legs from Publix, damaged his apartment complex in a BB gun fight, screamed a sexist vulgarity while standing on a table in the student union at FSU and faced allegations — not proved — that he accepted payment for autographs. Total punishment: Suspension for the Clemson game.
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In cliffhanger after cliffhanger he brought the Seminoles back from deficits to win 26 consecutive games, including a national title last season. His first loss as a starter was in his final college game, the 59-20 implosion against Oregon in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Rose Bowl. It all came undone for FSU in the third quarter when Winston, scrambling and searching for another retort, fell and fumbled, leading to a recovery and 58-yard touchdown run by Ducks linebacker Tony Washington.
“I never thought I would slip and throw the ball backwards,” Winston said. “It hurts badder than whatever you can imagine. I mean, losing is not really in my vocabulary, to be honest with you.”
So true. This is a guy accustomed to finding a way or getting his way. Just about every time he has messed up, he either has scrambled free or received a pardon, which would make anybody inclined toward an attitude of confident entitlement. Maybe the lack of consequences for his myriad transgressions helped mold him into a panic-proof quarterback.
It is time for the Famous Jameis Era to end at FSU. On national TV, celebrating Oregon players mocked Winston and FSU by chanting “No means no” while doing the tomahawk chop. The school’s image has suffered, as has that of coach Jimbo Fisher, viewed as an enabler and apologist. Athletic triumphs too often become a pox on a university. It’s like the crowd-pleasing Best in Show dog biting his owner during the awards ceremony. The good times were fleeting for the Fab Five at Michigan, Reggie Bush at USC, Cam Newton at Auburn. The taint tends to linger. Buckeye Nation was embarrassed when a 2-year-old tweet from third-string Ohio State quarterback sensation Cardale Jones got national publicity in the run-up to the championship game: “Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain’t come to play SCHOOL, classes are POINTLESS.”
Two years ago, Winston was accused of rape by a female FSU student. The case was egregiously mishandled by the Tallahassee Police Department and the university. It took a year for it to get to the state attorney, who ruled that he lacked enough evidence to pursue prosecution. It took another year for FSU to hold a conduct code hearing, at which Winston was found not guilty of four charges.
Throughout the long and bungled process, everybody looked bad. The woman’s identity was revealed, she was harassed and had to transfer, only to have her name tweeted by Winston’s lawyer this fall. Winston’s character was besmirched as well. FSU showed insensitivity to its student body with its foot-dragging and neglect of Title IX law.
Winston’s accuser has hired the lawyer who sued Kobe Bryant in civil court in his sexual-assault case and who is a specialist in campus rape cases. A lawsuit is likely to follow Winston’s signing with a pro team.
But sports fans love comeback stories. That’s why they love Winston. He just turned 21 on Tuesday. Surely he’s got more comebacks in him. In the NFL he gets another chance to prove he’s not only a winner but a responsible man.